The Detroit Pistons have shown that they are a much-improved team from 2012-13.
The season is still incredibly young, but there is no doubt that this is the most talented Detroit Pistons team in half a decade.
They lost on the road to the Memphis Grizzlies in overtime, a 56-win team in 2012-13, but Andre Drummond had 12 points, 16 rebounds and three blocks in 48 minutes, silencing any concerns about his conditioning.
After a win against the Boston Celtics and a loss to the undefeated Indiana Pacers, the Pistons finished their first week of play at 2-2. With so many new pieces and a rash of preseason injuries, the Pistons still have one of the most intriguing rosters in the league. But there's still plenty to take away from the start of their season.
Monroe finished with 16 points and eight boards against the Grizzlies.
After shooting just 37.8 percent from the floor and grabbing just six rebounds per game during the preseason, some (including me) worried about Greg Monroe's transition to power forward.
He has put an end to those concerns.
The fourth-year big man has had a great start to the season, averaging 17.3 points and 11 rebounds with a 19.05 PER.
He's been particularly effective on the low block, where he has been able to overpower power forwards with his 6'11", 250-pound frame. He's been able to get to the line 6.8 times per game (17th in the NBA), converting a very solid 77.8 percent.
The most encouraging part has been that Monroe played well against the Pacers and Grizzlies, teams that have among the best frontcourts in the league. It's one thing to beat up on the undersized Trevor Booker against the Wizards, it's another entirely to go toe-to-toe with David West and Zach Randolph.
Monroe did just that.
The Pistons need to find someone who can slow down elite wing players.
In the first week of the season, the Pistons did an excellent job of defending opposing bigs—no post player scored more than 16 points against them (Randolph). Against the Pacers, they held West and Roy Hibbert to a combined 20 points.
But the Pistons have shown that they are vulnerable to giving up big performances on the perimeter.
In that same game with the Pacers, Paul George burned them for 31 points on 12-of-18 shooting. Trevor Ariza scored 28 points against them for the Wizards, his highest total since April 12, 2010. Against the Grizzlies, they allowed Mike Conley and Tony Allen to score a combined 38 points on 13-of-22 shooting (59 percent).
The Pistons' biggest hole at this point may be the lack of a perimeter stopper. Josh Smith was excellent at times with the Atlanta Hawks, but he will struggle against quicker players, as evidenced in his matchup with George.
They'll need someone to step into that role if they want to compete with the top teams in the Eastern Conference. At this point, they don't have an answer for George, let alone LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
Josh Smith has taken a questionable number of threes thus far.
Smith is a career 28.2 percent three-point shooter—in his best individual season he shot 33 percent. In his first nine seasons he had never averaged over 2.6 three-point attempts per game.
So what is he doing taking 28 threes in his first four games as a Piston?
Only four players in the NBA are averaging more attempts per game than Smith—Ariza, George, Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard—and they are all shooting at least 37 percent from beyond the arc. Smith has made just 25 percent of his threes.
It's inevitable that Smith's long-range attempts will go down—only two players attempted at least seven threes per game in 2012-13—but it is disconcerting that he has been letting them fly so freely. He's currently accounting for one-third (33.7 percent) of the Pistons' three-point attempts after taking just 10.6 percent of the Hawks' attempts last season.
Smith is playing on the wing more than ever with Monroe and Drummond occupying the paint, so there will be more opportunities to take threes than there ever was in Atlanta. Smith will need to find a way to resist the urge, and head coach Maurice Cheeks can help by drawing up plays that get Smith attacking the basket, where he's most effective.
The Detroit big men have had their way down low.
The Pistons were expected to be a strong team down low with Drummond, Monroe and Smith, but few people expected them to be among the best in the league at scoring inside.
According to NBA.com, 53.1 percent of Detroit's points have come in the paint, the highest mark in the league. They've also been the top shooting team from within five feet of the basket, at 65.5 percent.
The early success signifies major improvement from 2012-13, when the Pistons ranked 23rd in shooting from within five feet (56.8 percent).
The three starting frontcourt players have all been very effective within five feet of the basket, where they have collectively made two-thirds (58-of-87) of their shots. Smith was particularly devastating, shooting 76.2 percent (16-of-21), eighth among players with at least 10 such shots.
The strength of this team is very clearly in the paint; few teams can match the size and athleticism of their bigs. At least through one week, Cheeks' game plan has looked to take advantage.
The Pistons need to do a better job of moving the ball.
With eight new players and a new coaching staff, it's not a surprise that the first week was a bit sloppy offensively for the Pistons.
They're averaging more turnovers (18.8) than assists (18.5), the sixth worst ratio in the league. Their assist ratio of 14 (assists per 100 possessions) ranks 23rd. Overall, exactly half of their made baskets have been unassisted; Miami has assisted on 75.7 percent of their baskets.
The return of Brandon Jennings from a jaw injury should help eventually, but he still needs to develop on-court chemistry with his teammates—he played just one game during preseason. Even then, he hasn't been the best facilitator in his young career.
Chauncey Billups is a great passer, but he has lost a step at age 37, and his days of playing major minutes are gone. Will Bynum is a solid backup, but he, like Jennings, is a score-first guard.
The Pistons may need to look to their big men to generate ball movement. Monroe averaged 3.5 assists per game in 2012-13 but is at just 1.8 thus far. As he begins to draw more double-teams from opponents, the Pistons should see more open shots on the perimeter.
Smith can also be used to create offense. Instead of using him as a spot-up shooter, Cheeks can run plays to get him attacking the basket. With the Hawks, he frequently was the ball-handler in a big-big pick-and-roll with Al Horford, and it was fairly successful.
As the players continue to play together, the chemistry will inevitably improve as will the fluidity of the offense. But Cheeks can help facilitate some of that by running plays that minimize the one-on-one play.